Duterte will aim to strike a balance
The major foreign policy challenge facing Rodrigo Duterte when he takes office as the Philippines president will arguably be balancing the enhancement of the Philippine’s defense relations with the United States and the improvement of the country’s political ties with China.
Duterte needs to ally the fear in the US that his presidency will lead to the cooling of Philippine-American relations, considering his nasty remarks against the US during his election campaign. Having been associated with personalities in the Philippine communist movement, Duterte displayed a critical and lukewarm attitude toward the US during the election.
Because the Philippine Supreme Court has declared the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, Duterte has committed to the inevitable implementation of the EDCA. But he asserts that he will closely monitor the agreement to ensure it is implemented in accordance with the Philippine’s national interests.
So it seems the Duterte presidency will depart from the excessive pro-US stance of his predecessor President Benigno Aquino III. This departure is now causing uneasiness in the US State Department and the Pentagon. The changing of guard in the US, which will have its own presidential election in November, provides another source of uncertainty in the current trend and future direction for Philippine-American relations.
While Duterte seriously values the Philippines’ longstanding security alliance with the US, he seems to be more enthusiastic about repairing the Philippines’ damaged political ties with China. In many of his public statements during his campaign, and in the aftermath of the recently concluded elections, Duterte vowed to resume bilateral talks with China.
Duterte prefers the exploration of peaceful options to address the Philippines’ South China Sea disputes with China. To peacefully manage the disputes with China in the South China Sea, Duterte has openly declared his preference for promoting joint development. Though Duterte still needs to clarify the details of his idea of joint development, he seems to be following former top Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s formula of shelving territorial disputes for the purpose of joint cooperation.
When asked by reporters of his position on the South China Sea disputes with China after the election, Duterte said, “I would say to China, do not claim anything here — and I will not insist also that it is ours.” Again, this is a drastic departure from his predecessor who enunciated a hard-line South China Sea policy, “What is ours is ours.”
Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague will soon announce its decision on the Philippine’s unilateral arbitration case against China, Duterte seems to be more interested in pursuing a policy of accommodation with China than forcing the issue of international arbitration.
The Duterte presidency, however, must be wary of the effect of excessive accommodation of China just to get investments, improve trade, boost tourism, and revive development assistance. Excessive accommodation of China could potentially undermine the Philippines’ long standing alliance with the US.
Duterte’s presidency should stick to a foreign policy of hedging by continuously enhancing the Philippine’s defense alliance with the US while resolutely improving its political ties with China. In this case, the Philippine can pragmatically advance its national interests by getting the best of both worlds.
The Philippines does need to improve its ties with its close neighbor, China. But it still needs the warm embrace of its distant relative, the US.
The author teaches at the department of international studies at Miriam College, the Philippines, and is the director of the Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies (CINSS), Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. Courtesy: chinausfocus.com